Claude Osteen: Dodgers’ Valuable Third Wheel

Everyone remembers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. The duo pitched 11 years together in Brooklyn and in Los Angeles. Together, the pair  helped the Dodgers reach the Fall Classic five times, three of which their team won. But there’s a good chance  they wouldn’t have won their third and World Series title without the help of their third wheel, Claude Osteen.

One of just 56 players to debut in the majors at or before the age of 17, Osteen pitched  18 seasons for the Reds, Senators, Astros, Cardinals and White Sox — in addition to the Dodgers. It was there, in Los Angeles, where his presence was felt most. The Dodgers acquired Osteen in a trade with the Senators that included Frank Howard, so they didn’t exactly get him cheap. But the Dodgers certainly got their money’s worth, especially since it took several years before Howard became a star. Osteen, meanwhile, was a Dodger from 25 to 33 years old and spent the bulk that time outworking his competitors.

In 1969, Osteen tossed 321.1 innings for the Dodgers in his age-29 season. It now stands as one of just 78 300-inning seasons since the start of the Integrated Era (1947-present). What’s noteworthy is how Osteen kept on chugging in the years following his feat of strength. In the three seasons after, he tossed 258.2, 259 and 252 innings. In his final season, at 35 years old, he still threw 204.1 innings. This is in sharp contrast to some of the other members of the 300-inning community. Not like freaks like Fergie Jenkins and Gaylord Perry of course. After all, they threw up 300-inning seasons all the time. But guys like Andy Messersmith are perfect examples  why the game no longer lets guys throw so many innings anymore. In 1975, 29-year-old Messersmith pumped out 321.1 innings. From there, he went 207.1 innings, 102.1 innings and then 22.1 innings. A year later, at 33 years old, he tossed 62.1 innings. It was his last season in the majors.

That fate did not befall Osteen. He was certainly never the same pitcher in terms of quality, but he wasn’t exactly a stiff. And he kept taking the mound. From 1970 to 1973, he put up at least 2 WAR as a slightly under-league-average pitcher. Of course, it was the earlier part of his career where he really stood out.

From 1964 to 1969, he was the 10th most valuable pitcher in the game by WAR — in a dead heat with Koufax and slightly more valuable than Drysdale. By RA9-WAR, he drops a bit, to 14th, well behind Koufax but only slightly behind Drysdale, who ranked 14th for that period. Pick your poison and Osteen held up pretty well. In all six seasons, Osteen never posted an ERA worse than 3.33, and in five of the six seasons he posted a better than league-average FIP-. He was an innings eater; one who gobbled them up with aplomb and posted above-average results while doing so.

What’s most interesting about Osteen is just how long he was able to do what he did with his low strikeout rate. Osteen’s career 11.2% K% isn’t exactly a remarkably low figure, even for his era. Of the 1,918 qualified pitchers since 1947, Osteen’s K% ranks 1,595th — bad, but certainly not among the worst. But nearly all  the pitchers with a strikeout rate lower than Osteen didn’t survive long in the majors. And we would think the same of Osteen. We talk frequently about how pitchers can’t survive with low strikeout rates, but Osteen did. Yes, K rates were much lower in that era than they are today, but Osteen’s strikeout rates were still below average for the time.

The 323 pitchers lower than Osteen on the K-rate spectrum averaged just 7.5 career WAR, with the best of the lot being Bob Lemon and Doyle Alexander at 34.5 WAR. Osteen, on the other hand, clocked in at 44.8 WAR for his career, which ranks 111th all-time. In his prime, Osteen worked his K% up into the 12% to 14% range, but he was never a strikeout machine. This made it hard for him to be spectacularly efficient. He had a career 1.71 K/BB, and he never posted a mark higher than 2.92. Yet he was able to toe the line, and he pitched in the majors for 14 full seasons.

And he never toed the line more beautifully than he did in Game 3 of the 1965 World Series. It was Osteen’s first season with the Dodgers, and he  slotted  third in the rotation behind Drysdale and Koufax but in front of Johnny Podres. The Dodgers were down 2-0 to the upstart Twins, who had mopped the floor with Drysdale in Game 1 and then were able to get Koufax out early enough in Game 2 to take advantage of LA’s bullpen. In stepped Osteen for the Game 3 start, in what proved to be a pivotal game. After posting 13 runs in the first two games, Minnesota pushed across nary a run against Osteen. He tossed a complete-game shutout and allowed only five hits and two walks. He struck out two. There’s certainly not a lot of flash to a start in which 28 of the 32 batters he faced put the ball in play, but Osteen’s shutout turned the series around for the Dodgers. Los Angeles won the next two games and took a 3-2 series lead, which gave them the luxury of having to only win one of two games back in Minnesota for the series conclusion.

The game was certainly an important moment in Dodgers history. There’s a  legit chance that if Osteen hadn’t stepped up, then the Dodgers’ 1963 triumph would have been the franchise’s lone World Series title of the decade. To this day, LA’s six World Series rings seem light considering their storied past, and without Osteen, it might have fewer.

Scanning the list of the most valuable pitchers in Dodgers history, you see lots of familiar names: Drysdale, Koufax, Podres, Don Sutton, Dazzy Vance, Fernando Valenzuela, Orel Hershiser and Clayton Kershaw. But nestled in the middle of that group is Osteen, who ranks sixth all-time among Dodgers pitchers in both WAR (34.7) and RA9-WAR (38.9). He was rarely more than the third wheel in the Drysdale-Koufax show, and his pitching was anything but flashy, but he still ended up playing a prominent role for the boys in blue.

We hoped you liked reading Claude Osteen: Dodgers’ Valuable Third Wheel by Paul Swydan!

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Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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You gotta love the guys carrying the weight, year in year out.